Clinical Review

A Real Welcome Home: Permanent Housing for Homeless Veterans

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Although World War II and Korean War veterans did not experience homelessness as previous veterans had, the problem resurfaced after Vietnam—the combat veterans of that war were overrepresented among the homeless.17,18 Those at highest risk ranged from age 35 to 44 years in the early years of the all-volunteer military. It has been suggested that their increased risk may reflect social selection—volunteers for military service came from poor economic backgrounds with fewer social supports.19 A more recent study found that 3.8% of more than 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were followed for 5 years after military discharge experienced a homeless episode.20 Female veterans similarly are overrepresented among the homeless.21 Female veterans represent only 1% of the overall female population, yet 3% to 4% are homeless.

Homelessness has always been a social problem, but only during the 1970s and 1980s did homelessness increase in importance—the number of visibly homeless people rose during that period—and investigators began to study and address the issue. Experts have described several factors that contributed to the increase in homelessness during that time.22,23 First, as part of the deinstitutionalization initiative, thousands of mentally ill persons were released from state mental hospitals without a plan in place for affordable or supervised housing. Second, single-room-occupancy dwellings in poor areas, where transient single men lived, were demolished, and affordable housing options decreased. Third, economic and social changes were factors, such as a decreased need for seasonal and unskilled labor; reduced likelihood that relatives will take in homeless family members; and decriminalized public intoxication, loitering, and vagrancy. Out of these conditions came an interest in studying the causes of and risk factors for veteran homelessness and in developing a multipronged approach to end veteran homelessness.


Nationally, veterans account for 9% of the homeless population.24 Predominantly, they are single men living in urban areas—only about 9% are women—and 43% served during the Vietnam era.24 Among homeless veterans, minorities are overrepresented—45% are African American or Hispanic, as contrasted with 10% and 3%, respectively, of the general population. More than two-thirds served in the military for more than 3 years, and 76% have a history of mental illness or substance abuse. Compared with the general homeless population, homeless veterans are older, better educated, more likely to have been married, and more likely to have health insurance, primarily through the VA.24,25

The Washington, DC, metropolitan area encompasses the District of Columbia, northern Virginia, the tricounty area of southern Maryland, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. Demographics for veterans in this area vary somewhat from national figures. According to the 2015 Point-in-Time survey of the homeless, veterans accounted for 5% of the homeless population (less than the national percentage). Most homeless veterans were single men (11.6% were women) and African American (65% of single adults, 85% of adults in families). Forty-five percent reported being employed and 40% had a substance use disorder or a serious mental illness. A large proportion also had at least 1 physical disability, such as hypertension, hepatitis, arthritis, diabetes mellitus, or heart disease.26

Risk Factors

Multiple studies and multivariate analyses have determined that veteran status is associated with an increased risk for homelessness for both male and female veterans.27 Female veterans were 3 times and male veterans 2 times more likely than nonveterans to become homeless, even when poverty, age, race, and geographic variation were controlled. A recent systematic review of U.S. veterans found that the strongest and most consistent risk factors for homelessness were substance use disorders and mental illness, particularly psychotic disorders. Posttraumatic stress disorder was not more significant than other mental conditions but it was a risk factor. Low income, unemployment, and poor money management were also factors.

Social risk factors include lack of support from family and friends. Military service with multiple deployments, transfers, and on-base housing may contribute to interruption of social support and lead to social isolation, thus increasing veterans’ risk for homelessness. Some studies have found that veterans are more likely to report physical injury or medical problems as contributing to homelessness and more likely to have 2 or more chronic medical conditions. Last, history of incarceration and adverse childhood experiences (eg, behavioral problems, family instability, foster care, childhood abuse) also have been found to be risk factors for homelessness among veterans and nonveterans alike.

Understanding these risk factors is an important step in addressing homelessness. Homelessness prevention efforts can screen for these risk factors and then intervene as quickly as possible. Access to mental health and substance abuse services, employment assistance, disability benefits and other income supports, and social services may prevent initial and subsequent episodes of homelessness. The VA, as the largest integrated health system in the U.S., is a critical safety net for low-income and disabled veterans with complex psychosocial needs. One study found access to VA service-connected pensions was protective against homelessness.28


Recommended Reading

Academic Reasonable Accommodations for Post-9/11 Veterans With Psychiatric Diagnoses, Part 1
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Nearly 14% of Veterans Have Considered Suicide
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VA Announces Improvements to Crisis Line
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